A Forgotten Patriot

THE world regards success and ignores failure, first setting up its own standard of the one and making its own definition of the other. In innumerable cases it may be in the right, but in some at least the standard may prove defective and the definition too narrow. There is an unwritten philosophy of failure full of a pathetic and curious interest. “Who knows, ” said Sir Thomas Browne, “whether the best of men be known, or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, than any that stand remembered in the known account of time ? ” The great host of failure includes men of extraordinary endowments, indeed it seems as though genius itself were given no indefeasible power of accomplishment, but that it rather resembles some elemental force in nature, which may be utilized in man’s service, or, comparatively speaking, be suffered to go to waste. Something, trifling perhaps at first sight, may yet prove strong enough to nullify its power, or divert it into an unprofitable channel: some fatal weakness of the will, some insuperable bodily disorder, some constitutional inability of the man to understand and comply with the temper and requirements of his time. So there is a slight but fatal lack of adjustment between the power and the machinery; the stream goes by the mill, but the wheel stands idle. Hamlet and Don Quixote are world-types of this imperfect adaptation to the machinery of things. Both men rise above the average, and both fall short in situations where the average man might have succeeded. The very gift for which each is remarkable, — an intellect of more than ordinary depth and subtilty, a nature too nobly credulous of the heroic, — this gift becomes in each case the appointed instrument of failure.

Yet we instinctively shrink from accepting the world’s verdict upon a man of the Don Quixote type. Life may “succeed in that it seems to fail.” If it is true that fame grows not on mortal soil, nor lies in the verdict of majorities, the apparent discrepancy between a man’s power and his accomplishment may, in many cases, be only apparent. History, like rumor, must be at best a compromise with the secret truth of things. It must often pass over obscure men whose unregarded influence may be the moving power behind the events which it records. It is often profitable to study, in the lives of these obscure men, the correlation and conservation of those spiritual forces which are known in general only through their more obvious results.

Such reflections are familiar enough, yet when they are suggested and enforced by example, by contact with some actual human experience, they come home to us almost as a new truth. I recently found a fresh meaning and depth in them, when I became interested, almost by chance, in that obscure Don Quixote of the eighteenth century, Thomas Day. Here is a man who achieved but a very moderate worldly success in his lifetime, and held but a minor place in the esteem of his more immediate successors. Ridiculed by his contemporaries and almost forgotten by posterity, he has suffered the penalty of superiority, but missed its reward. His very name is growing unfamiliar; his work as a patriot and philanthropist is forgotten. His more ambitious writings have been long submerged, and now the waters seem to be fast closing over his Sandford and Merton. Yet whether we recognize it or not, Sandford and Merton has a part and place in the social and literary history of England which no student of either can afford to ignore. And back of this book is a man of singularly noble character and lofty aims, who helped, if obscurely enough and in ways now little regarded, to make history.

Day is notable, first of all, because in a truly remarkable way he anticipated and exemplified those ideals of social life and conduct which a generation or two later were to change the history of Europe. He was born in 1748: just midway in the progress of that extraordinary century which proclaimed in its age what it had denied in its youth; which began life a cynic and left it an enthusiast; which despised at its latter end nearly all those things it delighted in at its beginning. Such a profound change of nature cannot well be effected in so short a time without suffering the pains of growth. If we look at England alone, it is clear that a naturally conservative nation cannot pass within about a hundred years from The Rape of the Lock to the Ode to Duty, from Robert Walpole to the Reform Bill, from John Toland and the Tale of a Tub to Newman and the Tractarian Movement, without that internal conflict between the new and the old incidental to so complete a revolution. Born only four years after the death of Pope, Day felt the first stress of this conflict. He fought almost single-handed against the coarse materialism and blind prejudice which surrounded him; an innovator, a man in advance of his time, he died before he saw his labors justified by the event, just as the mightiest spirits in England were about to be enlisted in his cause.

Three things combined to form Day’s character and influence his career: the nature of his early training, the teachings of Rousseau, and the friendship of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the father of the novelist. Day belonged by birth to that wealthier stratum of society, the luxury and selfishness of which it became one of the main objects of his life to reform. An only child, he was left fatherless when about a year old, the heir to a comfortable though not a great fortune, which proved more than sufficient for his needs. To enter upon life with good health, an excellent social position, and independent means, is to have the world at your feet, — and we know what the world meant then in England. But from the first the child was remote from that world in a wholesome and bracing air. Day’s mother was a woman of unusual strength of character and soundness of judgment. Distinguished herself by a remarkable capacity for endurance, she was disposed to give the power of self-control a high place among the virtues. Day seems to have inherited her strength of character, and his natural fortitude and selfcommand were trained and developed by his mother’s teachings and example. Here is the real beginning of much that is memorable in his story. It is probable that in Sandford and Merton Day merely handed on to innumerable children that manly and invigorating spirit he had gained in his own childish years. In the contrast between Merton, the gentleman’s son, feeble, selfish, and tyrannical, through parental indulgence, and Sandford, the farmer’s boy, made manly, hardy, and independent by the discipline of plain living,— in this contrast, and in the austere and heroic quality of the whole book, we feel the spirit of the mother alive in the work of her son.

Day’s strong traits of character declared themselves early. At school he gave his money to the poor; at Oxford he turned away from books to study man and moralize on the problems of society. There was already a stirring in him of that deep human sympathy which was to be the best and strongest feature of his life. He wanted to meet men face to face, especially the men whose lot was harder or humbler than his own. Accordingly we find him making short trips, on the Continent or here and there in the British Isles, watching with his own eyes, studying for himself, the daily life of man. Many of these journeys were taken on foot, for Day felt that this unpretentious mode of traveling brought him into closer and more direct contact with the humbler classes. The sympathetic insight into the lives of farmers, artisans, and day-laborers, gained in these early wanderings, must have done much to strengthen the young student of man in that admiration for a life of simplicity, that antagonism to the idleness, pride, and selfishness of the wealthy, which were to dominate his career. His friend and biographer, Mr. Keir, says that on these expeditions Day mixed with “ people of all descriptions; sometimes going into the parlour of an Inn, and at other times into the kitchen, where he generally found most of the amusement and instruction he was in search of; ” adapting himself to the uncultivated, and treating them “rather as less fortunate brothers of the same family, than as beings of a different and inferior order. ” There is surely something very memorable in this. To realize its full significance we must go back in imagination to those middle years of the eighteenth century when Day began these democratic wanderings. Men like Thomson and Gray had indeed struck notes that we now look back to as preludes to modern democracy, but the ideal of human brotherhood had not taken hold of men. France was yet feudal; Jefferson had not yet declared that all men were born free and equal; Paris had not yet murdered her thousands in the name of fraternity. In Britain, nearly all of those generous young enthusiasts who were to march in the van of democracy, the avant - courriers of Utopia, were unborn or in their cradles. The work of Crabbe, Cowper, Blake, and Burns, of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey, lay in the future. Day treated all men as brothers in the great family of man, when the ministries of Rockingham and of North were taxing the American colonists ; when Johnson, Tory and radical-hater, was the leviathan of British letters, and Horace Walpole was playing at book-making at Strawberry Hill. Yet somehow in this England, in which Lord Chesterfield wrote his Letters to his son, in which the elder Fox deliberately instructed his boy in the gentlemanly art of gambling, in the midst of this depraved and corrupt society Day’s boyish eyes turned toward that high ideal which was to be the hope of those that came after.

It was during these years at the University that Day came under the spell of the extraordinary iconoclast whose strange doctrines were to be one of the strongest influences in his life. Émile was published in 1764, the very year in which Day entered Corpus Christi College; early in 1767 Rousseau, hunted from the Continent, took refuge in England on the invitation of Hume. In spite of Dr. Johnson’s denunciation of him as “a rascal who ought to be hunted out of society, ” Rousseau turned the head of many a generous youth, for already indefinite desires, half-instinctive movements toward an impending change, were hurrying the world to the brink of a new era. Leslie Stephen has emphasized the underlying affinity that exists between Rousseau and Cowper, singularly uniting two men opposed at almost every point; there is a similar affinity between Rousseau and Day, apparent in spite of innumerable elements of difference, for, with all his errors, Rousseau marshaled the makers of history in the way they were already going, and back of him and of them was the pressure of the same force.

The third of the important influences on Day’s life, the friendship with Edgeworth, dates from about the close of Day’s stay at Oxford. In the brilliant, versatile, and impressionable young Irishman, Day found one who was in many respects a kindred spirit. Both men were keenly alive to new ideas; both were enthusiastic disciples of Rousseau ; but it was Edgeworth who first attempted to apply the great Frenchman’s theories of education; Edgeworth who first wrote stories for children; Edgeworth to whose example and suggestion we owe Sandford and Merton. About the time the acquaintance began, Edgeworth, fascinated by the charm and eloquence of Émile, resolved to bring up his son according to Rousseau’s system ; and assuming the result of the experiment to be fairly stated, it must have confirmed Day’s belief in the methods employed. According to his father, the boy acquired under this training “ all the virtues of a child bred in the hut of a savage, and all the knowledge of things which could be acquired at an early age by a boy bred in civilized society.” He grew, moreover, “ fearless of danger, and . . . capable of bearing privations of every sort.” We cannot avoid seeing in such a character the embodiment of that ideal of manliness which the author of Sandford and Merton loved to depict. To gain all that is admirable in the freedom and hardiness of a natural life, and yet lose none of the advantages of civilization, this was the goal — the mirage if you will — that both friends sought.

But Edgeworth did more than encourage Day in his admiration for Rousseau. Through Edgeworth, Day entered the charmed circle of the Muses at Lichfield, over which that portly Apollo, Dr. Erasmus Darwin, presided. One is tempted to linger over this chapter of Day’s life, for surely none of the great English novelists, not even the chroniclers of Cranford, Barchester, Carlingford, or Middlemarch, has created a provincial society so fascinating and so extraordinary as that which then actually flirted and poetized, talked sentiment, gossip, and philosophy, under the shadow of Lichfield Cathedral. There was the beautiful Miss Eleanora Sneyd, for whom Major André felt an unrequited and “inextinguishable passion ; ” there was James Kier, the chemist, Day’s friend and future biographer ; James Watt, “the celebrated improver of the steam engine; ” above all there was as corypheus Dr. Darwin himself, the heavy-footed and corpulent minstrel of The Loves of the Plants, who — in the characteristic words of Miss Seward — had bound himself with the wisdom of Ulysses for twenty years to “the medical mast, ” that he might not follow “those delusive sirens the Muses,” but who at last permitted himself “to entwine the Parnassian laurel with the balm of Pharmacy.” And there not the least was Miss Anna Seward herself, “ the Swan of Lichfield, ” effervescing with sentiment even in her prose, a masterpiece who in her own person surpasses the most striking creations of fiction.

It is with this “ Darwinian sphere ” of Lichfield, as Miss Seward calls it, that Day’s memory has come to be chiefly associated. Here many of his warmest friendships were formed; here, having taken a cottage “in the little green valley of the Stow, ” he tested by actual experiment the efficacy of Rousseau’s ideas of education, as Edgeworth had done before him. The story has been charmingly told elsewhere, and need only be alluded to here for the light it throws on one side of Day’s character. A born idealist, he confidently expected to find a beautiful being who, for his sake, would gladly resign all the luxuries and vanities of the world, and live with him in some roseembowered cottage a life of antique simplicity and self-denying benevolence. He held fast the loftiest ideal of womanhood in an age of coarse manners and low morals; he longed for a woman’s love and sympathy, and yet disdained to conform to the ordinary requirements of society, or to use any of those aids of dress or manner by which men sought to make themselves acceptable. For a time he thought that he had found his ideal in Edgeworth’s sister, but Philosophy and Fashion were soon parted by a mutual incompatibility. After this disappointment Day resolved to make his ideal woman for himself. He accordingly adopted two foundlings, girls of eleven and twelve, and brought them up according to Rousseau. He strove to teach them to endure pain “with the fortitude of a Spartan virgin; ” to keep a secret; to live simply and think nobly; to despise dress and love philosophy. One of them soon gave way under the trial, and Day, with an exquisite recognition of the irony of things, apprenticed her to a milliner ; the other was brought to Lichfield. Day had called her Sabrina Sidney, after the nymph of the Severn and the republican patriot, but apparently (although she was an excellent girl) he could not exalt her to the high level of her name.

It cannot be denied that in this farcical affair, Day showed all the generous weakness of the idealist; that he is here a veritable Don Quixote, obscuring the hard facts of life in the hues of romance. Yet even this story is not merely ludicrous. Day’s conduct throughout was scrupulously honorable, testifying to his lofty purity as well as to the unpractical and visionary side of his character. After all, his only errors were noble ones: a too exalted opinion of average human nature, and a belief, natural to inexperience, that education, like the Great Elixir, has a magical power of converting dross into fine gold.

Unfortunately for Day’s fame, the irresistible humor of this episode has forced it into a prominence which its real importance does not justify. Day was but twenty-two or twenty-three years old at this time, yet this piece of youthful folly has been dwelt upon almost to the exclusion of the really notable things in his career. The result of this false perspective has been an unintentional but regrettable injustice. We have been content to see him as he appeared to his contemporaries, forgetting that they neither understood his ideals nor saw his life in its true proportion. Accepting this traditional view without question, a recent English critic describes Day as “ a perfect type of the mad Englishman with whom foreign caricatures have familiarized us.” A little later he calls him “a philanthropist of the most bigoted sincerity.” Now what are the facts? It must be admitted that Day’s manners were unconventional ; that he neglected to brush his hair; that his dress did not always combine neatness with simplicity. He could not learn to dance; he disapproved of powdered wigs ; so far the indictment must be sustained. But those who remember these things should remember further that on nearly every great issue of his day this “mad Englishman ” was saner than almost any other man of his generation. It was his distinction to differ from the average man on these great issues, and he has paid the penalty even to our own day; nevertheless, he was right, and the average man was wrong.

The first of these great questions was the slave-trade. Judged solely as a contribution to poetical literature, Day’s first published work, The Dying Negro, has but little claim to be remembered. But while it may justify us in forgetting Day the poet, it should compel us to honor Day the philanthropist. By its theme and its intention, it lifts its author to a plane with Thomson, Shenstone, Dyer, Cowper, and with those others who quickened the conscience of England, and prepared a way for Clarkson and Wilberforce.

The second great cause in which Day interested himself was the reform of Parliament. In a speech on this subject at Cambridge in 1780, he denounced the existing system of representation as a “mockery,” and passionately pleaded for reform. This was about two years before Pitt made his unsuccessful attempt in the House of Commons to accomplish the same end, and more than half a century before the passage of the Reform Bill.

The third great cause which found a champion in Day was the cause of the American colonists. Day supported the colonies from the first in both prose and verse. In a pamphlet on The Present State of England and the Independence of America (which ran through four editions in little more than a year) he strongly urged that the independence of America should be acknowledged and the war brought to a close.

These are three of the great causes for which this “mad Englishman ” labored. In the first he stands with Clarkson and Wilberforce; in the second with William Pitt and Lord John Russell; in the third with Burke and Chatham. This is surely a remarkable record for any one man; it is all the more remarkable when we reflect that the relation which Day occupies to these great leaders is often rather that of a pioneer than a follower. Day is of course an insignificant figure beside the great men with whom these historic issues are associated ; but we are not now considering the amount of ability he brought to their support. We are going to the facts to find whether he was indeed the “mad Englishman” of caricature, and we find that on these three great questions at least, he was more than ordinarily sane.

The truth is that our opinion of Day will largely depend upon what we consider important and what we may regard as trivial. We may assign a high place to an enlightened patriotism and a clear judgment in the vexed questions of the state; or, like M. Jourdain’s dancingmaster, we may think that the art of dancing is of all things the most necessary to men. The contemporary misconception of Day, which we have inherited, was due in part to his “passion for reforming the world; ” it was due, most of all, to the fact that his life was lived according to principles which those about him could not understand. In a bewigged and powdered generation, coarse in thought and action, yet formal in manner and phrase, he chose to live simply and nobly. Having money, he yet worked with his own hands. He disliked and shunned towns; he believed that it was good for every man to earn his own bread. He had in him a touch of the visionary, yet those who call him a dreamer should add that his dreams have come true. America is independent; the slave-trade abolished; Parliament reformed. His ideal of a simpler life, if not yet realized, has been the hope and inspiration of Cowper, Wordsworth, Ruskin, and many of the noblest spirits of modern times. Even that other youthful dream, which seemed to Edgeworth the height of folly and presumption, even that came true. A woman of wealth, position, unusual abilities, and a wide knowledge of literature, turned away from twenty suitors to live Day’s ideal life of simplicity and benevolence with this uncouth and dogmatic philosopher. Finally the facts show that this man, who has been sneered at as a philanthropist of “bigoted sincerity, ” anticipated at last the methods of modern scientific charity. Toward the close of his short life he wrote to Edgeworth: “The result of all my speculations about humanity is, that the only way of benefiting mankind is to give them employment, and make them earn their money.” Day’s last years were spent in an effort to apply this theory. He took a farm in Surrey; here he lived simply, tilling the ground, thinking high thoughts, conversing on high themes, striving, above all, to be a brother to all men. He gave work to those out of employment, welcomed “common farmers ” to his table, and chatted with the laborer in the fields; he fed the hungry; clothed the naked; gave medicine to the sick, and comfort to those who were in trouble. Here again our opinion of Day depends upon our sense of relative values. Some have ridiculed him because his farm did not pay ; they mean by this that he lost money through his manner of conducting it. This is perfectly true.

I have not attempted to consider Day’s work as a man of letters. He was before all a patriot and a social reformer ; he did not aim at literary distinction for its own sake, but looked upon all that he wrote as merely a means to an end. He was often a vigorous and effective writer, but the men who, like Burke, can contribute at the same time both to political controversy and to literature are indeed few, and Day is not among them. Among that early group of writers for children to which Mrs. Barbauld and Hannah More belonged, Day is probably second to Maria Edgeworth alone; and it is but just that his reputation as a writer should rest chiefly on Sandford and Merton and the History of Little Jack. But I have tried to show that Day’s chief claim on our grateful remembrance is not as a man of letters at all, but as a man whose life and aims and labors have a significance commonly overlooked, a man whose share in the spiritual emancipation of England was doubtless far greater than we can now determine.

It is more than a century since Day, Cowper, Burns, and Wordsworth saw visions and dreamed dreams. Since then Democracy, whose approach they heralded, has had its chance to transform the world. What has it done for us ? Do we really believe in it any longer? Does not the enthusiasm of a man like Day seem unreal and fantastic, even to us who live in a nation originally set apart to proclaim and exemplify his principles ? After a century, have we gained confidence in the rule of majorities; have we developed the antique virtues of a Cincinnatus, a Cato, or an Epictetus; have we come to despise the world’s shibboleths of rank and fashion, and grown in the power to live simply, work honestly, and think nobly? Above all, have we realized that the fact of a common humanity dwarfs or wipes out all lesser or adventitious distinctions ? Has Democracy failed? Was it after all but a quack panacea, impotent to heal the chronic and deep-seated diseases of mankind,— or have we failed, have we indeed held the elixir vitœ in our hands, and then, like willful children, thrown it away ?

Henry S. Pancoast.